Oscar Holland, CNN
Avatars are nothing new, and neither is the idea that we care how we look online.
As the trend toward immersive virtual worlds, or “metaverses,” gathers momentum, personalized digital avatars have become increasingly ubiquitous thanks to games like Fortnite and Roblox. But on the online platform Second Life, users have been able to create and customize their own digital presence for almost two decades. And this is exactly where a 2017 body-shaming scandal exposed an uncomfortable truth: our true ideals of beauty will invariably follow us into the metaverse.
The incident began when an in-game fashion brand allegedly sent out offensive fat-shaming messages on a group channel. The label then launched a bizarre crusade against plus-size women. In its virtual store, which sold digital clothing for skinny avatars, the brand put up a “No Fat Chicks” sign next to an image of a model wearing a crop top that read “No Fat.”
Debate ensued in the Second Life community, and larger-figure avatars came to the store in protest. Some waved custom placards (“I love you skinny, I love you fat,” one read, “Diversity is all of that!”) while hosting a sit-in demonstration.
As writer and longtime Second Life user Wagner James Au noted on his blog at the time, foot traffic may have made things worse by increasing the store’s visibility on the platform. The owner of the offending label certainly thought so. Another sign appeared thanking protesters for “promoting my brand, business and products… for free.”
Like most online flare-ups, the controversy died down within days. But according to Au, whose book Why the Metaverse Matters is due out next year, the ongoing debates about Second Life’s customizable avatar shapes are revealing a troubling undercurrent among certain users.
“People were like, ‘You can be anything, you can be as beautiful as you want – or can afford – so why do you choose to be fat?'” he recalled in a video interview from California. “They got angry.”
Changed defaults for avatars
It wasn’t always like that. In fact, in the early years of Second Life, many users didn’t even look human, making it difficult to judge them by real-life standards.
“Avatar types used to be much more diverse,” says Au. “You were just as likely to find someone who is a fairy or looks like an anthropomorphic animal or robot – or some other fantastical combination of different identities – as you were finding a ‘Sims’ avatar looking very attractive for a person in their 20s. “
The shift was partly technological. In 2011, amid improvements in graphics and computing power, Second Life allowed users to create 3D skins, or “meshes,” that could be uploaded to the platform. This made the appearance of the avatars more and more realistic. On the one hand, this gave users more freedom to create characters that reflected what they really looked like – including those who preferred to appear curvier or bolder. On the other hand, it marked what Au called a “Pandora’s Box” moment.
“It changed both the culture and the economy around avatars,” he said. “Until then, there was definitely a lot more tolerance for the diversity of avatar types… But rewarding highly realistic, beautiful avatars reinforced existing prejudices that we carried over from the real world to the virtual world.”
For those users whose avatars are “outside the norm,” harassment still happens “all the time,” Au added. “Anyone with a big avatar is going to get at least a few nasty comments.”
If metaverses represent the next evolution of the internet, then platforms like Second Life – often referred to as the first metaverse – offer lessons for our digital future. For one thing, new platforms have to decide how realistic avatars can be and how much freedom users have to change their appearance.
According to a 2021 study by The Business of Fashion, around 70% of Gen X-Z US consumers consider their digital identity to be “important”. But by empowering people to accurately replicate themselves, platforms can open the door to bullying, harassment, and even racism, which unfold in real life when users’ looks don’t meet prevailing standards of beauty.
Conversely, characters in Roblox have a distinctly Lego-like appearance with oversimplified faces, while Fortnite avatars often take the form of two-legged animals or robots. Decentralized and avatars seem much more conventionally human. And while Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta has yet to reveal its full Metaverse vision, the company seems to be settling on comparatively realistic numbers as well. (Though cartoonish, the widely shared Zuckerberg avatar is unmistakably him.)
Despite his experiences with Second Life, Au believes that the vast majority of online users want their virtual selves to be either “an idealized version of what they look like, or a completely different personality.”
“So I’m pretty amazed that Meta assumes that you want to look like what you look like in real life,” Au said.
There is currently little consensus on this. How we present ourselves in the metaverse can also depend on what we do there. For example, socializing with friends and holding work meetings might require significantly different avatars.
It can also vary between demographic groups. In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, two Clemson University professors found that current virtual reality users “tend to present themselves consistently with their offline identities” when it comes to physical characteristics like skin color and body shape declined. However, this was especially true for the non-white participants in the study, the researchers found.
“For (non-white users), ethnicity representation is fundamental to creating a unique self-expression in social VR,” the authors wrote, adding that these avatars could face social stigmas just like in the real world .
“Freedom in Abstraction”
From plus size catwalks to genderless makeup, old ideals of beauty are increasingly being challenged in today’s world. Completely removing them from the real world is not an easy task. But could there be a chance to bypass these standards in virtual reality?
For artist and beauty futurist Alex Box, the metaverse offers an opportunity to tear down existing aesthetic conventions and rethink how we present ourselves.
“It’s very hard for people to imagine who they are without a body,” she said on a call from the Cotswolds region of England. “It’s a whole different set of rules and ways of connecting to your identity when you say, ‘You’re just a form or you’re just an object.’
“But naturally, the more one moves towards the abstract, the less one moves towards body shaming, body logic, limits and ultimately everything that has been imposed on us from the dawn of time via the rules of our bodies and our autonomy. So there’s freedom in abstraction,” she said, explaining that some people might choose to have “a representation … of their energy, of their believed personality, (or) something that’s an extension of themselves.”
For now, users are offered the familiar. Even platforms with unusual or playful avatars are within conservative (or maybe technologically necessary) parameters. For example, they usually have faces, eyes, and hands. And unlike us, they’re always symmetrical too, Box noted. With With the metaverse still in its infancy, the self-proclaimed identity designer predicts that the ways in which we can present ourselves—and with it our perceptions of beauty and identity—will inevitably expand.
“The endless choice makes it very difficult for people to build,” she said. “If you can be anything, what do you choose? Are you just following the same tropes as in real life? Yes, initially I think people will do it. But then they get bored.”
What form such experiments will take remains to be seen. And Box concedes that as long as megalomania and exclusionary ideals of beauty exist in real life, they will exist in some form online as well — especially when people are less responsible for their actions in virtual worlds than in the real. (“People will be people… There will be trolls, there will be magic, there will be concerns, and there will be shame because it’s people who do it,” she said).
The key to avoiding the kind of avatar-shaming seen in previous iterations of the metaverse, Box says, is to make sure those who build virtual worlds — the gatekeepers — themselves represent a wide range of races, shapes, and sizes . For now, that seems an unlikely prospect. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more than 83% of American tech leaders are white and about 80% are men.
“The broader and more diverse the actual makers of the software are,” Box said, “the more diverse and closer you get to the truth of identity in the choices you have.”
Caption above: avatars from the online platform Second Life.
The CNN Wire
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